Jacob Katz and his family will be returning to Toronto this month after living in Guatemala for almost two years.
And while they’ll be packing up many belongings for home, Jacob will be leaving something very important behind – his bar mitzvah money.
He’s donating all the money from his recent bar mitzvah in the Central American nation to Access Education – Guatemala Children’s Fund. The Toronto-based charity, founded by Adrienne Rosen, builds schools in Guatemala and provides scholarships to children who can’t afford to pay school fees.
In a recent phone interview, Jacob proudly told The CJN that through his mitzvah project, he will be helping more than 30 children attend high school this year. “Before I came to Guatemala, I knew about poor people, but I never saw any.
“Now I’ve been to their homes, and some [homes] have the whole family living in a one-room house. That’s when I saw real poverty.”
He said he decided to give his bar mitzvah money to Access Education after visiting the small town of La Union for a middle school graduation. “The kids that graduated were the first kids to pass middle school in that town.”
He noted that education isn’t free in Guatemala, and those new graduates need to pay fees to attend high school, which will be in a nearby town until Access Education finishes building the high school wing in La Union.
In his blog, Jacob wrote that his goal was to raise $3,600. However, he exceeded that amount by $1,120.
Jacob is linked to Access Education through his mother, Claire Merbaum, a Toronto educator who has been on the board of this charity for eight years.
She said that after a couple of visits to Guatemala on behalf of Access, she wanted her family to have the opportunity to live in Guatemala. She was particularly interested in Panajachel, a small gentrified tourist town with a good mix of American expats, international volunteers and indigenous people.
Panajachel is about a three-hour drive from Guatemala City and an equal distance from La Union.
Merbaum, who speaks Spanish, was able to find a teaching position at the Robert Muller Life School in Panajachel. This non-profit international school offers an English immersion program and provides scholarships to 30 per cent of its students, many of whom are Mayan.
Merbaum’s husband Josh Katz, an IT specialist, took on more domestic responsibilities in Guatemala.
Their two children, Jacob and Jennifer, 10, had been students at the Toronto Heschel School and are attending the international school.
Jacob prepared for his bar mitzvah through weekly Skype meetings with Toronto educator Dori Levine, Merbaum said.
“Technology really enabled all of this [bar mitzvah] preparation to happen.”
The family observed Shabbat in Panajachel, but for the High Holidays, they travelled to Guatemala City for services at Adat Israel, a Reform congregation, led by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, founding rabbi of Toronto’s City Shul.
She’s on the advisory board of Access Education and discovered Adat Israel six years ago on a trip to Guatemala City following board work she did for Access in La Union.
“The congregants [of Adat Israel] were a flock without a shepherd,” she said. “I helped them become a real congregation, and through this effort, the congregation became accepted by the World Union for Progressive Judaism [the worldwide umbrella of the Reform movement).”
Her role is that of volunteer rabbi, and she visits the congregation once a year. This year, she timed the visit with Passover so she could officiate at Jacob’s bar mitzvah and lead a community seder for Adat Israel members.
Rabbi Goldstein made it clear she doesn’t do destination bar and bat mitzvahs. She said Jacob’s bar mitzvah was an exception, because he and his family are part of the Adat Israel community. They helped with High Holiday services there, and in Toronto they attended High Holiday services at City Shul.
She called the bar mitzvah a “perfect connection” between Guatemala, City Shul, Adat Israel and Access Education.
She said when Jacob was called up for an aliyah on Shabbat morning, it was the first bar mitzvah for the Guatemalan congregation. “It was so fabulous.”
The congregation marked the occasion with the completion of a striking new Aron Kodesh that was hand-made by two congregants. “They rushed to get it done on time. It was very emotional when we dedicated the Ark.
“The depth of [the congregants’] passion is palpable. They’re deeply in love with being Jewish, against all odds.”
A second bar mitzvah ceremony – attended by some 50 guests from Toronto – took place a few days later at a hotel in the colonial town of Antigua, a popular tourist destination.
Rabbi Goldstein described Jacob as a young person with depth and a big heart.
She said in his dvar Torah, he spoke about the difference between living with “kids who want and kids who need.”